Havergal BRIAN (1876?972)
Symphony No. 22 Symphonia Brevis (1964-65) [9:22]
Symphony No. 23 (1964-65) [13:54]
Symphony No. 24 in D major (1964-65) [16:29]
English Suite No. 1, Op. 12 (1905-06) [25:51]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company, KULTURA, Moscow, 26-27, 30-31 Aug 2012.
NAXOS 8.572833 [65:26]
Havergal Brian lived four years short of a century. For some eighty of those years he wrote music. His 32 symphonies form the single most numerous aspect of his production and extend over the longest period of his eight active decades.
The four works here are drawn from close to the extremes of his writing period. The three symphonies are from the mid-1960s when he had less than ten years left. The Suite is from his vigorous twenties.
The symphonies communicate to me as a collage of voices: sometimes consonant and sometimes in collision. Those voices are variously mysterious, tender, prayerful, sardonic, furious and embattled. On the surface the progress of the symphonies proceeds awkwardly and with Bruckner-style silences along the way. Of these three examples the Symphonia Brevis is the most impressive. Setting the special case of The Gothic to one side, after the Sixth Symphony, the Brevis is the most memorable. It's also the one where artistic logic and emotional symmetry are at their most compelling. The effect of an epic is achieved in only 9:22 and in that sense the Brevis compares with the somewhat longer Rubbra Eleventh Symphony. I remember playing the work to groove destruction when the CBS LP came out (you can still hear that performance on Klassic House). It is a remarkable work and forms a weird but fitting counterpart to The Gothic.
Numbers 23 and 24 appear here in their first ever recordings. This leaves - I think - only No. 5 (Wine of Summer) to be recorded before all are available on commercial CD. No. 23 is eerie, belligerent and seethes with incident. As always with Brian the writing is tonal. If it is not instantly accessible it is because of his compression of argument. The composer leaves it to the audience to fill in the dots between his at times disconcerting transitions. At first blush Brian's building blocks can be heard as an extrusion from the material of Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony though the progress of No. 23 differs from that of the RVW. Just as with No. 24 - which unlike its two predecessors is in a single movement - concision and compression are the order of the day. Episodes melt or blast into one another at a sometimes disorientating pelt. Brian offers the reassurance of familiarity in the shape of moments in the first movement of No. 23 which evoke the final awed pages of The Gothic. There's also a strangely familiar valedictory gesture at the very end of the second and final movement; I just cannot quite place it. No. 24 piles in with a confident march gesture but this soon falls away into the pell-mell of calculated motes and shards. First time around some of these will speak to you while others will leave you high and dry. The symphony ends with scathing and corrosive fanfare material that is suddenly transformed into something unequivocally heroic.
At the other extreme comes the Suite. It's the first of five, of which only four have survived. The six substantial movements are light in the sense that Dvorak's and Smetana's suites and dances can be considered light. There is humour aplenty here but mixed in with moments of rural bliss, sentimentality, Nutcracker magic (Interlude and Carnival), sonorous praise. If you have heard the old BBC broadcast of Brian's opera The Tigers then some of this material will have a familiar ring. The movements of the suite are: I. Characteristic March; II. Valse; III. Under the Bench Tree; IV. Interlude; V. Hymn; VI. Carnival.
The liner-note is by long-time Brian champion - and so much more, witness his work on Tempo - Malcolm MacDonald. It completes a well assembled and generous disc which, given the presence of the Suite and the wild yet rigorous fantasy of the Symphonia Brevis, serves as a welcoming gateway to Brian enthusiasts existing and potential.
A welcoming gateway to Brian enthusiasts existing and potential.